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Virtual Mother

by Lori Jakiela

My birth mother sends me messages on MySpace. She’s 68 years old, creeping around a website where friend is a verb and teenagers want someone to tell them they’re pretty. She lives alone. She drinks and thinks too much, and sometimes, usually after midnight, she can’t help herself.

“What kind of person does that?” I ask my brother, her son. He and I have met.  She and I have not. She doesn’t want to. After a few of these messages, I don’t want to, either.

“It’s not you,” my brother says. “It’s her.” But who knows.

I am 44 years old. I don’t belong on MySpace any more than my birth mother does, but there you go. I got a MySpace page when my first book came out. This is how I justify things. My page has a picture of my book on it. On the cover there’s a smiling flight attendant with the top of her head cut off. Her hands are poised on both sides like wings. She’s showing emergency exits, a way out.

Every time my birth mother sends me a message, she deletes her profile. Call it regret or fear. A quick way out. Then she puts another profile up in its place. There’s never a photo. Just a placeholder, the generic gray outline of a face, a question mark.

I have seen real pictures of her, though. My brother has shown them to me. In the pictures, she is unremarkable. Even now, I could pass her on the street and not notice. A thin old woman with short dyed blonde hair, big round glasses. Her posture is sharp, perfect. She’s prone to shoulder pads. When she poses, she keeps her hands folded tight in her lap. Controlled. She looks nothing like me.

At first I tried to find something similar between us—our hands, our eyes – but I’ve grown happy I can’t see it.

My birth mother writes in the subject line of her messages, “Do Not Respond!” She loves exclamation points. This is embarrassing. I’m a writer. I hate exclamation points. A teacher once told me, “Use an exclamation point once every seven years and then only when you mean it.”

“I Will Pray for You!!!” my birth mother writes. “Do Not Respond!”

I think she means it.

I don’t want her prayers. How dare she keep deleting herself so I can’t respond. It’s unfair, another severing.

“Why don’t you just block her?” my brother asks.

But even if she didn’t shape-shift like she does, I wouldn’t, not yet. Maybe, despite everything, I’m waiting for her to say something kind. Maybe I’m waiting to find the good in her. Maybe even now I think she loves me. Maybe I’m like those teenagers who want to be told they’re pretty. It’s that simple and sad, wanting to be loved.

“I want to forget you ever existed,” she writes. “I shut the door on you a long time ago.”

My book, the one that I got the MySpace for, is two years old now, but I still check my page every day. I update lists of what I love, my profile song. I love fedoras and the Brooklyn Bridge. I’m from a town that’s the birthplace of the chocolate-covered pickle. Right now my profile song is Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky.” Sometimes I leave my profile page up, bob my head, and listen.

A while back, I switched from MySpace to Facebook because it was supposed to be more dignified. An older demographic. Strangers sent me virtual plants.  I started throwing sheep and zombies. I poked people.

These days, I’m back to MySpace. What started as a marketing plan has become a cheap way to feel in touch. I send lost friends messages that say “Hope all’s well” and “Thinking of you.” I say, “Let’s get together soon.”

“There will be no meeting,” my birth mother writes. “Not at a basketball game, not ever.”

I don’t go to basketball games. My birth mother wouldn’t know this. I also don’t send serious messages on MySpace, and that she does terrifies me as much as her exclamation points.

Most messages I get have fairies and kittens on them. The kittens are cute dressed up as rock stars or soldiers. The fairies glitter. Sometimes they’re animated—a kitten firing an AK-47, fairies fluttering their legs and wings. The kittens say, “Hope your day is purrfect.” The fairies say, “Have a magical day.”

My birth mother does not wish me a magical day. She wishes me dead.

“Go on with your life,” she says. “Shame on you.”

“She’s crazy,” my brother says. “She’s paranoid. It runs in the family. Don’t let it bother you.”

I love my brother. That I met him is its own miracle. His eyes are brown. Mine are green. When we smile, our eyes cock like commas. We have the same loopy grin.

I was 40 before I started to search for my birth family. I did this after my mother died. By mother I mean the woman who raised and loved me. By search, I mean grief. This is what it was – grieving the loss of one woman, trying to fill up the emptiness with another.

My whole life there were reminders of how much I didn’t know. I was sick a lot. On medical forms, there were questions. Family history of heart disease? Unknown. Family history of diabetes? Unknown. Family history of cancer? Unknown.

“I’d like a medical history,” I told the Catholic Charities woman I’d hired to help me search. The woman was kind. She looked like a nun. She wore a taupe skirt. A tiny gold cross gleamed at her throat.

“Yes, but there’s always more,” she said. “Sometimes things go well, like in the movies. Other times, most times, they don’t.”

Family history of stroke? Unknown.

Family history of mental illness?

The messages my birth mother sends ramble. They leap and spiral and make no sense.

“While you are pursuing your fantasy as to how you were so left behind!!” she writes. “Shame on you! Your ancestors were hard working and proud individuals and you just beat that down!”

I don’t know what I’ve beaten down. The fantasy, my adoption, isn’t a fantasy. It’s fact.

My birth mother, I think, has real fantasies. She sets up MySpace profiles under the names of rock stars. The last one was Joan Jet. One T.

“If she’s going to do that,” I tell my husband, “she should at least get the spelling right.”

In college, I dressed like Joan Jett, black jean jacket and tight jeans, spiked mullet, tough girl stance, one elbow on the bar, the other tossing back shots. Like my birth mother, I drink too much. I feel her paranoia in me, too, its gnarled root of fear and longing.

“I mean, what’s wrong with her?” I ask my husband.

“She’s crazy,” my husband says. “Let it go.”

This is probably true. It’s good advice. And unlike the advice about exclamation points, I can’t take it.

Recently she sent me a man’s name, his address and phone number. She didn’t explain at first, then followed up days later with another message.

“Your father will deny you,” she wrote. “There’s no denying!!”

“She told me who my father is on MySpace,” I say. “What kind of person does that?”

What kind of person does that? And worse, how much of that person is in me?

I think of all the doors I’ve shut, people I’ve hurt without thought, and the bodies pile up. Even writing this. Even this. Is this the same? Am I already iced over? Is this an act of betrayal? And if so, of who?

I try to imagine her, 68, alone in the dark. The light from the computer screen turns her face blue. The gray silhouette, the question mark, reflects in her glasses. The shadows of everything come back. I try to feel her fingers on the keys, the anger rising up. Her face looks underwater. She’s trying to push down the past.  The past, like a drowning victim, refuses to stay down.

“What’s done is done,” she writes.

Then weeks later, again. “Do Not Respond! What’s done is done.”



Lori Jakiela' photo

Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoir Miss New York Has Everything (Warner/Hatchette 2006) and a poetry collection, The Regulars (Liquid Paper Press 2001). Her essays and poems have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Tears in the Fence (U.K.) and elsewhere. She lives in Trafford, Pa., the birthplace of the chocolate-covered pickle.